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Martin Laplante

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Mon, 25 May 2009

What is the Proper Role of Villages in Smart Growth

What is the appropriate Smart Growth response to villages outside the urban boundary that want to make large amounts of land, often agricultural land, available for development? The traditional sprawl developer response is simple: let the owners decide and before long you have a new greenfield development that either ignores the village except for its roads or that creates the fiction that your new suburban single family house inherits the image and goodwill of village living.

The Smart Growth response is more complicated. There are some who, because it is outside the urban boundary, will bang their staff on the bridge and shout "You shall not pass!" There are others who will look at older villages as the epitome of compact walkable complete communities that they would like to emulate, with farms and nature all around as a bonus, and would say we should use the village as a nucleus for a compact community, which can be infilled while maintaining its vitality. Others still look at these villages, which typically have very little zoning or planning in place, and see their lack of rules and its success as evidence that lack of rules leads to success.

I'm not certain what is the proper response. Whether these villages are treated as pristine noble savages whose purity must be preserved or as a nucleus for satellite communities like the garden city movement or the old railway suburbs tried to do, I have never seen a traditional village survive as anything other than a minor commercial hub for a low-density suburb once it gets captured by a central city, like falling into the gravity well of a black hole.

It strikes me that a town can not serve two masters. Either it has an independent economy, whether agricultural or based on a local industry, or it is subsidiary to a larger city in which case it will turn more and more into a bedroom community, with the influence it gets as both an independent political entity and from the influx of well-off city dwellers with high expectations. The road system that it got simply by virtue of being a rural town not too far from civilization becomes the start of a transportation umbilical cord that links its residents and its economy to the central city. It will stop having an independent economy and its residents will no longer care as much about local issues and more about regional ones. The local residents may never have seen the necessity of shopping at the local store as a benefit at all, given a choice between that and the greater variety and lower prices available at exurban stores. Real estate prices will rise to reflect the interest and purchasing power of big city folk. This prices the local economic activity out of the market.

At this point, should we tell local landowners, for whom increasing land values make the local economy less and less sustainable, that they should hold off on selling or developing their land, for the benefit of respecting one of several competing views of how the metropolis should grow? This is giving them a raw deal: all the disadvantages of joining the city and none of the advantages. They get priced out of their own home town and are then told that it is for the common good of a large set of people that doesn't know them.

I tend to believe that a line in the sand should be drawn. Villages should not have any part in the growth plans of the metropolis, not even as a nucleus or as an alternative. Money should be spent to protect a strong independent local economy, but preventing newcomers from settling there if they don't work there. Impractical, I know, but there are some good legal ways of preventing new residents from settling there. The growth in interest in local agricultural products is one way of doing this, because it increases the value of agricultural land while keeping agriculture as a viable industry, and ensuring that road improvements between villages and larger cities do not get funded is part of the tough love approach that will protect villages. Those that want to create new walkable communities that try to approximate idealized village life within the sphere of influence of a city should probably start from scratch or try to convert an existing suburb.

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